In 1990, the computer and game industries threw increasing support behind a proposal for an even greater level of MIDI standardization, which would provide more conformity of sounds within a MIDI sequence. General MIDI (GM), as it became known, was ratified at the NAMM show in 1991. It lays down the law about the number of sounds a GM-certified instrument must offer, as well as the sound categories and program change assignments that it must use (see the sidebar The GM Instrument Set). It also specifies, among other things, the required amount of polyphony, some controller assignments, and the specific note numbers of individual percussion sounds within multi-sound drum kits (see the sidebar The GM Drum Kit). In addition, GM drum kits were assigned to MIDI Channel 10. The introduction of General MIDI brought about a new breed of instrument, and the General MIDI logo began to appear on synths and sound modules from several major manufacturers.
From the start, however, professional users grumbled about the dumbing down and homogenization of MIDI and computer-based music. Although such criticisms were unwarranted, MIDI soon faced serious competition from other camps. Digital audio, which many users deemed as more real, more cool, and more powerful than MIDI, gained suddenly in popularity. And from within the MIDI industry, the trend started to move from multitimbral boxes to more specifically hands-on instruments from new companies such as Clavia, Novation, Waldorf, Quasimidi, and Access.
General MIDI never really recovered from this double whammy. While GM modules continued to sell, and a niche market for Standard MIDI File (SMF) song libraries continued to grow, manufacturers began to show reservations about GM. In essence, they neither knew what to do with General MIDI nor what it could develop into, and that imbued the GM landscape with an almost apologetic air.
With all its problems and perceived unhipness, however, GM is an incredibly useful tool. GM allows a healthy (albeit never foolproof) level of uniformity that is a lifesaver for composers in the game, corporate, and broadcast industries. The Web, too, has benefited greatly from this universal language of musical delivery.
Reprinted with permission from Magazine, February, 2001
© 2000, Intertec Publishing, A Primedia Company All Rights Reserved
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